KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s perennial opposition leader, has often been on the cusp of power but age is catching up with him and tomorrow’s election could be his last chance to win the top job.
The 75-year-old, whose political career spans four decades and includes two prison stints, is optimistic his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition can finally win enough seats to form a government and replace the graft-tainted ruling party.
So long the runner-up of Malaysian politics, Anwar could be running out of time to achieve his long-held but elusive ambition of leading the Southeast Asian nation.
“This is Anwar’s last election. If he fails to get the support to become prime minister (PM), there will be expectations that he should step aside,” Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia told AFP. “If he chooses to stay on, this will only serve to weaken the opposition further and fragment it. There are other leaders ready to lead.”
Anwar was a firebrand youth leader when he was recruited in 1982 into the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main political party that ruled Malaysia for more than 60 years.
His star rose meteorically, with the suave young politician becoming finance minister and then deputy prime minister in the early 1990s under former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a youthful counterbalance to the political veteran.
The pairing, considered one of the most dynamic duos in Southeast Asian politics at the time, soon unravelled.
Tensions came to head during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, when they had a bitter falling out over how to handle the debacle.
Some observers say Anwar had been too impatient to become prime minister, slighting his patron.
Mahathir sacked Anwar, who was also expelled from UMNO and charged with corruption and sodomy, the latter a crime in the largely Islamic nation.
He was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption in 1999, with an additional nine-year prison term added for the sodomy charge the following year, the two sentences to run consecutively.
As Anwar claimed political persecution, street protests erupted and evolved into a movement calling for democratic reforms.
Photos of Anwar with a black eye, inflicted in prison by Malaysia’s then police chief, were published in newspapers around the world, turning him into a symbol for a struggle that adopted the battle cry of “Reformasi!”, or reforms.
The Mahathir-Anwar tussle has dominated and shaped Malaysian politics over the past four decades, “alternately bringing despair and hope, progress and regress to the country’s polity”, according to Oh Ei Sun of the Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.
The Malaysian Supreme Court overturned Anwar’s sodomy conviction in 2004 and ordered him freed.
After a brief hiatus from politics as an academic, Anwar returned to lead an opposition coalition in the 2013 general election.
His alliance won 50.87 per cent of the popular vote but failed to muster the numbers needed for a parliamentary majority.
Controversy continued to hound the married father of six. He was again sentenced to jail for sodomy in 2015, this time for five years, at the age of 70.
He has maintained his innocence and received a full pardon from the Malaysian king three years into his sentence. Anwar returned to Parliament months later after winning a by-election.
Anwar allied with Mahathir during the 2018 elections when his erstwhile tormentor came out of retirement to challenge incumbent Najib Razak, who was mired in the billion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal.
Their alliance scored a historic victory against UMNO and Najib, who is serving a 12-year jail term for corruption.
Mahathir became prime minister for the second time, this time with an agreement to hand over the premiership to Anwar later.
He never fulfilled that pact, and their alliance collapsed after 22 months, leaving Anwar empty-handed again and paving the way for UMNO to return to power.
Anwar has rejected any more alliances with Mahathir, who is again running for parliament at age 97.
“No matter how you dice it, the relationship between Mahathir and Anwar is cold,” Malaysian political analyst Charles Santiago told AFP.
Anwar’s campaign rallies for tomorrow’s vote have drawn sizeable, enthusiastic crowds, many still chanting the “Reformasi!” slogan made popular 30 years ago.
“To save this country from endless political turmoil and corruption, I appeal to the people to give their support so that we can emerge with a clear majority,” he told AFP.